Diplomat on China’s early days

To explain China’s path to becoming an economic and military force, American diplomat Nicholas Platt relied on an unlikely source — his home movies.

Platt’s Thursday talk in the Hall of Graduate Studies was billed as a discussion of grand strategy between the United States and China. Though Platt did address grand strategy, he spoke extensively on his personal experiences as a State Department officer in China during the early 1970s and contrasted them with China’s position in the world today for an audience of 40 graduate students, Yale alumni, and members of the New Haven community.

American diplomat Nicholas Platt spoke Thursday at Yale about China’s growth.
American diplomat Nicholas Platt spoke Thursday at Yale about China’s growth.

Platt began with a silent family film taken during his visit to China with then-President Richard Nixon in 1972. While Nixon met with Chinese leaders such as Chairman Mao, Platt laid the groundwork for the construction of the first United States Liaison Office in the Beijing Hotel and explored the country. Platt showed footage of celebrations for the National Day of the People’s Republic of China and his visit to the nation’s second-largest steel mill — which Platt said is still the country’s second-largest almost 40 years later.

“That was what China was, and still is in many ways,” Platt said.

China has always been focused on development, Platt said. In recent years, the government has turned its attention towards innovation and entrepreneurship, passing state council laws that mandate innovation.

Still, he said, the United States still holds an advantage over China because the government’s restrictive policies prevent “free flow of ideas and the freedom to fail.”

“China is too competitive,” Platt said. “There are no second chances.”

While the balance of power between the United States and China used to depend upon military power and industrial development, Platt said that globalization and the development of information technology greatly affected the balance of power between the two nations, putting a greater emphasis on “soft power” — namely cultural creativity, intellectual weight and economic strength as well as military capability.

Platt’s approach to relations with China emphasizes the need for “collaboration over confrontation.” He said that stability is the United States’ primary goal in its relationship with China and other East Asian countries, adding that the United States has “worked its way into a clinch with China.”

“Our goal is to stay that way,” he said.

Alice Wang ’12 grew up in rural China, and said the subjects Platt discussed are “very contemporary” to her. Platt was “diplomatic” in his comments, Wang said, adding that he tactfully addressed controversial issues and answered audience questions carefully. Still, Wang said she got the impression that Platt loves China, as a good diplomat should.

Audience member Larry Brownstein works in the clothing industry and has done business in China previously. Brownstein said he especially enjoyed Platt’s stories of China in the 1970s.

“I thought it was fascinating — the fact that he was there for the transformation of China, and that he was one of the first people there,” Brownstein said.

Peter Bonoff ’67 described Platt as “the right man, in the right place, at the right time.”

Platt served as a China desk officer from 1968 to 1969 in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and was chief of the political section of the US Liaison Office in Peking, China, from 1973 until 1974. He published a book, “China Boys: How US Relations with the PRC Began and Grew,” earlier this year.

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